BOSTON, MA - There was a hockey game to be played Wednesday night at TD Garden.
But in the lead-up to the night, the heart-thundering moments prior to puck drop and the "We are Boston" chants that echoed so loud the 'Gallery Gods' were summoned back into the balconies, it was much, much more than a hockey game.
The words simply aren't there, when 17,565-plus join together to not only sing, but belt the national anthem, when "Believe in Boston" banners and "Boston Strong" posters flood the crowd, when you know, deep down, there's a healing taking place right in front of your eyes.
"It made you feel proud of this city and of our fans of this solidarity that was shown," said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien following the game. "Certainly proud of this city for how they responded tonight."
You could feel the energy pulsing from the players, both Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres alike, from the fans, from the city, from the country, from the world. And it all came together during one simple hockey game.
A game when blue and yellow ribbons were projected on the ice and "Boston Strong" flashed across the video board.
A game when a video montage was something the players skated off the blueline and craned their necks to see, to watch intently, eyes glazed over, heavy hearts still grieving with those affected by Monday's Marathon tragedy.
Andrew Ference was one such player, and there's a very telling image of Dennis Seidenberg standing next to him, illuminated in the glow of the blue and yellow ribbon projected on the ice, representing the Boston Marathon colors.
"I think me and Seides were over beside each other especially during the anthem, I think just trying to hold it together," said Ference, on trying to keep his composure. "It’s pretty awesome hearing everybody sing like that, and obviously emotions were pretty high. We all knew tonight was more than just another game."
"It meant to a lot of people as another step, and we’re just on the ice trying to have some remembrance from the last couple of days and also just move on as well to getting back to business in the city. It was tough. It was really tough."
"I think in the first shift everybody was choked up. I can’t remember being that emotional on the ice except for the last few seconds before we won the Cup. I think it’s about equal as far as emotions."
Rene Rancourt, famous for his powerful rendition of the anthem before Bruins' games, simply sang "Oh say can you see" and the first few phrases before the crowd kicked in and did the work for him, putting extra emphasis on "our flag was still there!" Immediately following the emotional few minutes, "USA!, USA!" and "We are Boston" chants broke out.
"I think in that instance they’re not really cheering for us, they’re cheering for our city and I think for themselves as much as anything," said Ference softly, whose closeness to the events that happened and knowing some involved, left him still fairly emotional following the game.
"It was pretty cool, I think, for everybody just to get back to having some memories of sports and good things happening."
"Emotions were high," described alternate captain Patrice Bergeron of his experience during the pregame moment of silence, anthem and tribute. "Obviously it’s something that you want to do for the city, for the fans and the feeling was great. The fans were awesome. I thought the ceremony was what Boston’s all about -- proud."
The low of the night happened with 26.6 on the clock in the third period, when Buffalo tied the game at 2-2, after Daniel Paille and Chris Kelly had scored for the B's. The ensuing 3-2 shootout loss was tough for the Bruins to swallow, and they felt anger at not getting the job done for their fans and city.
"We feel like the fans deserved it tonight and we couldn’t get it done for them so it’s hard right now to feel like you’ve won because they deserved better," said Bergeron, who was relentless in his first game back since sustaining a concussion on April 2.
"But the city is a winner for sure. That’s for sure, the fans, everyone, that’s -- it was something very special to be part of."
Normally, a defeat would mean a quick exit down the tunnel. But not Wednesday night. The Bruins gathered at center ice on the spoked-B, and joining them, were their NHL comrads and Northeast rivals, the Buffalo Sabres.
"It was a no-brainer for everyone I think on both sides and I think it was the perfect way to end the game," said Bergeron. "At the end of the day, it’s very disappointing not to get the win but if you look at the big picture, it’s a game tonight and with what happened the last few days, I guess it puts things in perspective and you make sure you realize that we’ve tried to do this for the city."
Captain Zee had talked to the group about the salute, but it was something they all knew had to be done for the city, win or lose.
"After the game, it’s no more about two teams trying to earn two points," said Zdeno Chara. "It’s more than that, and it was just a great gesture by everybody. I think the whole league, and the whole country, and I think the whole world, is behind us."
There were also moments throughout the game that took the emotion to another level, like when all Boston Marathon runners past and present were asked to rise, along with anyone who had ever been to the city's iconic event that's 117-years strong, as "We are all the Boston Marathon" boomed over the PA. Or when the 8-Spoked Salute recognized the 80 first responders in attendance, whose heroic acts saved many lives near the finish line.
"It got my emotions high throughout the game, just seeing the first responders getting shown on the jumbotron, all those things were, I guess, something that brought a lot of emotion not only in the crowd but on the bench," said Bergeron.
Tonight may have been just a game, but the emotions didn't rival preparing for a hated battle with the Montreal Canadiens, or a playoff game, or maybe even Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
"There was a different energy coming in, obviously with what happened," said Shawn Thornton, a beloved Bostonian who has engrained himself into the fabric of this hard-working, blue-collar town. "But I think the guys did a really good job of focusing on trying to give a good effort for the people here and the people of the city and the people of the country."
"We’re still grieving over what’s happened with the people going through it," said Coach Julien, when asked how his team might be able to recover from an "emotional let-down" from not pulling out the win for fans.
"And I don’t think that tomorrow’s going to be any different, and I don’t think the day after is going to be different. We just have to bear with it, be strong, and play hard."
"It’s not about trying to make this city proud of your team tonight - but every night. We need to go out there Friday and do the same thing. We need some strength and everybody needs to chip in."
As Captain Chara - the leader who is always soft-spoken with his words - sat in front of his locker room stall following the game, you could hear the solidarity in his words, see the sincerity in his eyes. The masterful speaker may know a slew of different languages, but he was searching to find a way to translate his emotions and do Boston justice with his words.
"It just shows that the people of Boston are so united and so strong," he said simply.
"It makes you proud to be a Bostonian, proud to be a Boston Bruin."